- Admit defeat and start over: I know people are attached to their email address, but it can really help to just start over. Don’t delete your old account, but switch to a new web-based account as your primary email. I like Gmail for tons of reasons, which you’ll see below. Send one mass email to your contacts and let them know you’re switching. The ones who are serious about keeping in touch with you will follow along and change their address books. I switched in August, 2004 and have kept my Inbox at zero ever since. If a new account is not an option, then:
- Cut down on volume: Every 6 months or so, I revisit whether I should be subscribed to an email list. Do you really read that newsletter anymore? Do you really need that joke of the day email? Gmail is cool in that it ignores dots in your email account. That means “jasonthedce”, “jason.the.dce” and “jasonthedc.e” are all the same as far as Gmail is concerned. It does, however, keep the dots, so you can search for messages sent to “jason.the.dce” and return some results. By signing up for newsletters and the like as “jasonthedc.e”, I’m able to quickly find them in my inbox and decide whether they are worth getting still. You can also try the +tag trick, though not all websites let you subscribe with a + in your name since only Gmail recognizes the + character to my knowledge.
- Use Firefox and Get Help: It won’t work for everyone, but the GTD Inbox extension for Gmail has really improved my email management. I don’t use all the features, but I now have a system for making sure things don’t fall through the cracks.
- Process Email in Passes: My 1st pass is built around speed. Clear the inbox as fast as possible. If it can’t be dealt with in under 2 minutes, tag it for follow-up and deal with it in the 2nd pass. This includes long emails with lots of reading like newsletters or really large bodies of text in email. The 2nd pass is for more detailed emails that require some significant time to deal with. Start with the easiest remaining or most critical, then work towards the bigger ones. The idea is to knock out lots of smaller items and get those “wins” under your belt before tackling bigger messages/projects in your inbox.
- Learn to Love Hotkeys: Google loves keyboard shortcuts. You might need to enable them in your Gmail (or Reader or Calendar), but learning to use them can save tons of time. My favorite for email processing:
- k: Move “up” a conversation (up = newer)
- j: Move “down” a conversation (down = older)
- c: compose a message.
- m: Mute. (Ever been stuck in an email discussion with lots of people in the CC: tag, yet you aren’t sure how in the world you got stuck on the list? Mute sends the whole thing and all future replies to the archive unless they are sent directly to you. You might miss something, but sometimes it’s useful.)
- s: Star a conversation (I use this less since getting GTD Inbox, but still useful)
- r: Reply
- a: Reply all
- Respect Others: I’m not great at it, but I’ve been trying to get my email responses down to Five.Sentenc.es whenever possible. Don’t be part of the problem for someone else if you don’t have to be. Like I said, I’m still not great at it, but I’m working towards it.
You can also check out the original Inbox Zero from 43 Folders for lots of tips on dealing with email overload. I went from somewhere around 1,000+ unread emails to zero by switching to a single web-based account (Gmail) from Outlook checking my work account (900+ unread) and Yahoo (100+) holding my personal email. You can do it!